Christian Picciolini (@cpicciolini) is an Emmy Award-winning television producer, reformed extremist, founder of the Free Radicals Project, and author of Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism and White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out. This is part one of a two-part episode. Make sure to catch part two here!
What We Discuss with Christian Picciolini:
- How the marketing of extremism has evolved to become more palatable to the masses.
- How identity, community, and purpose drive extremism — not ideology.
- Why extremism and race identity are popular with youth now more than ever before.
- What we can do if we know someone involved with — or thinking of becoming involved with — an extremist group.
- How an ex neo-Nazi skinhead became a uniquely qualified peace advocate to help others avoid walking in his footsteps.
- And much more…
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At a time when our States seem so thinly United, extremist groups seeking to divide us even further are enjoying a modern heyday of recruitment, media attention, and political encouragement. But why are such groups havens for the disenfranchised, and is there ever a way out for someone seduced by their poisonous ideologies?
Joining us in this episode is Christian Picciolini, a reformed white supremacist who can answer all of these questions. Christian is the founder of the Free Radicals Project, a global disengagement platform helping people exit from hate and violent extremism, and the author of Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism and White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out. This is part one of a two-part episode. Make sure to catch part two here! Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
THANKS, CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI!
If you enjoyed this session with Christian Picciolini, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism by Christian Picciolini
- White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out by Christian Picciolini
- Free Radicals Project
- Christian Picciolini’s Website
- Christian Picciolini at Facebook
- Christian Picciolini at Instagram
- Christian Picciolini at Twitter
- American History X
- The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood
- Hate Groups Increase for Second Consecutive Year as Trump Electrifies Radical Right by Southern Poverty Law Center
- Gunman Opens Fire at GOP Baseball Team Practice in Alexandria by Scott Wise, CNN Wire
- Is Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria Home to a Child Abuse Ring Led by Hillary Clinton? Snopes
- The Trump Administration Is Pulling a Grant From a Group That Combats Neo-Nazis by Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones
Transcript for Christian Picciolini | Breaking Hate Part One (Episode 317)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant and interesting people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these people think and behave and want to help you become a better thinker. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, then you'll be right at home here with us.
[00:00:40] Today, on the show, Part One with my friend Christian Picciolini, an Emmy award-winning producer, public speaker, and reformed white nationalist skinhead gang leader. What? Yeah, the story reads like the true version of American history X or something. On this episode, we'll uncover how identity, community, and purpose drive extremism, not simply ideology. We'll also learn why racial identity politics and skinhead groups are even more popular with youth than ever before in history. And we'll explore what you can do if you or someone you know has joined, is thinking of joining, or is under the influence of one of these extremist groups. This is a heavy topic with a very interesting and well-spoken guest.
[00:01:20] If you're wondering how I book folks like this, well it's all about that network and I'm teaching you how to grow, maintain relationships using systems, using tiny habits, teaching you that for free. Six-Minute Networking is the name of the course. It's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in great company. All right, here's Christian Picciolini.
Christian Picciolini: [00:01:47] We started this process 30 years ago when I was involved in the movement where we were skinheads, and we knew that because of our shaved heads and tattoos and swastika flags, we were scaring away the average American racist that we could pretty easily recruit if we just learn to massage our message and our look. So we started to do that. We started to grow our hair out and stop getting tattoos and encouraged the people that we were recruiting to wear suits and not boots and go to college and get jobs in law enforcement and run for office. And here we are 30 years later after that process started. And what do we see? We see kind of a massaged message with the same rhetoric behind it, the same fear rhetoric about the other, and they're wearing suits and they run for office and maybe even hold. Some of the highest offices in our country, and while the massaged message is slightly different because it's more palatable to some people, it's the exact same thing.
[00:02:41] It's just an evolution of marketing is what happened. They've learned to become normal. They've learned to blend in, and we used to call it leaderless resistance where we told people don't join groups. Be a lone wolf, so to speak. It's harder for law enforcement to take down an organization if there is no organization. It's easier for you to convince people about the ideology and appeal to their fears and ignorance if you speak their language. And come election day 2016, a bucket of gasoline was kicked over and ignited all those sparks that already existed all across America, and perhaps even created a little bit more credence to what they've got going on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:20] You know who else says, "Be a lone wolf, don't join an organization et cetera" is ISIS. We had Graeme Wood who wrote The Way of the Strangers, a book about ISIS and recruiting, and he's visited those folks to explore their ideology and figure out what they're about. And of course, I mean, we hear that on the news attack in place, things like that.
Christian Picciolini: [00:03:39] The parallels are striking between how a group like ISIS or Al-Qaeda recruits and how the Far-Right recruits all over the world and even to some degree, Inner City gangs. I mean, it's all really about placing the blame on somebody else through fear rhetoric. People don't join these groups because of ideology. People join these groups because they're searching for an identity, a community, and a sense of purpose, and there's some grievance, some underlying trauma or abuse or brokenness underneath all that. It could be mental illness, could be lack of employment or lack of education. It could be trauma; it could be a whole sort of things. And that's why they become vulnerable to the messages and the narratives of these extremist groups because they are looking for somebody to blame for the problems that they have, and they're not equipped to deal with them. So it's very easy for somebody to come across as savvy and say, "Oh, you know, it's the Jews, or it's the Muslims," or whatever. Then your narrative changes and because you have now developed this identity -- maybe you're not this awkward, bullied, marginalized person anymore -- you're now this warrior in your community. You may not have fit in because you were socially awkward or you didn't agree with people. Now you have this built-in community and they give you a sense of purpose.
[00:04:56] They say, "Be proud of who you are. That's where it starts pretty benignly. Then it turns into know your enemy and then from know your enemy, it turns into kill your enemy. That is the common theme no matter what type of extremist group you're talking about -- left, right, fundamentalist, religious, sovereign citizens, militia groups. You name it. That is the common theme that I think we need to understand.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:18] Take us through the early days when you were going through that same thought process. You're a kid. Were you bullied or something? How do people start off going, "You know what, I should join essentially a race identity group because that's a good idea"? How does that begin?
Christian Picciolini: [00:05:35] Well, let me set a basis for it first. So my parents were immigrants from Italy who came to the US in 1966. And when they came here, they were often the victims of prejudice and they had to work very, very hard to make it in a country that was pretty foreign to them. But they were able to do that by assimilating and adopting some of the cultures while not abandoning their own. But that kept them away from home seven days a week, 14 hours a day. So while I had a lot of love, my parents are great, I was raised by other people most of the time -- so I felt very abandoned as a young kid. I didn't come from a broken home. There wasn't addiction or wasn't abused, which is often the case too, with people who join extremist groups because there's another underlying pothole, so to speak. And mine was abandonment. I felt abandoned by my parents. I wanted to get the attention of my parents and then I became very resentful of the fact that they themselves were immigrants, even though they were European immigrants.
[00:06:32] At 14 years old, after having been marginalized and bullied for 14 years and not having a lot of friends, I was standing in an alley and smoking a joint. And this guy comes roaring down the alley with a 1968 Firebird that's kicking up gravel and dust, and it stops six inches from me. And the year was 1987 I was 14 years old. Nobody knew what a skinhead was in this country yet. This was before Geraldo got his nose broken on television. Guy walks over to me and he pulls the joint from my mouth, and he looks me in the eye and he says, "Don't you know that that's what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile." I was 14, man. I didn't know what a communist was except for Drago in my favorite Rocky movie. I didn't know if I'd met a Jewish person and I probably wouldn't have ever known that if they were standing right in front of me. I hardly knew what the word docile meant, to be quite honest. But what happened at that moment was he was the first adult because he was much older than me who told me not to do something harmful because of a real reason.
[00:07:36] My parents would have said, "Don't do that because it's stupid," or, "Don't do that because what are other people going to think if they see you doing that?" There was more vanity for them, but this guy -- even though I had no clue what he was talking about -- he was charismatic and he paid attention to me and then the conversation continued after he scolded me. He asked me my name and he recognized it was Italian and he started to say, "Well, you know. Italians are great warriors and you should be very proud of your culture." Then that's how it started and all of a sudden I was drawn into this community. He fed my identity, and then eventually he gave me the purpose and I fully swallowed it because I wanted to belong to this group.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:13] Yeah, well you don't have to feel too bad about that. That same exact sentiment worked on a huge number of people in Italy and Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s, and they were adults who should have known better and did largely know better.
Christian Picciolini: [00:08:25] I think it probably happened more recently than that in our own country.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:28] Absolutely. Of course, it did. And I remember talking with a kid when I was probably 14 or 15 and he was telling me, "I'm going to go get my skinhead tattoos." Oh, we met on AOL chat, because he messaged me with something like, "Hey, you Jew," or something like that, and I was like, "How do you even know?" I mean, he was probably just sending that to everybody in the chat room, honestly, and does wait for who would reply.
Christian Picciolini: [00:08:51] You know, that same guy is still sitting in that lazy boy chair in his parent's basement saying that exact same thing to other people right now, today.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:00] Well, you know what's funny? Instead of replying with anger, I was just like, "Hey, what's going on?" We just actually started talking and he's like, "You know, I'm going to be a skinhead. My brother is a skinhead and we're going to beat people like you up." And I realized he's probably like 11 or 14. I mean, who talks like that? Who cares? That's a little kid thing to say. And we actually got into a dialogue about this. I remember him telling me, "I'm getting my tattoos next week I'm going to be in -- " The group was called the Northern Hammerskins. You may have heard of it.
Christian Picciolini: [00:09:25] Yeah. I ran the Northern Hammerskins for a couple of years.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:28] Okay, well he was going to go meet you guys and get some tats. This is in Michigan, so I think that might've been to your area or a part of the area where these guys were.
Christian Picciolini: [00:09:36] That was definitely a state that I led. I was an interim director for the Northern Hammerskins, probably from 90 to 93 or 94 maybe.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:45] Really? That's definitely during the timeframe that I had this conversation. That is crazy.
Christian Picciolini: [00:09:49] I apologize for that 11-year-old ignorant kid.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:52] You know what though? It's okay because we kept talking for weeks after that because I was so curious about this guy. I was probably 13, 14 years old. I'd never encountered anything like this, and I figured I was safe because I was online. He didn't really know who I was. And I kept saying and asking questions. I guess that now that I look at it, it was a little bit more maybe in my nature of what we're doing now. I just kept asking him why, and it was always just, "This is what the Jews are doing," and, "How do you know that?" "Well, my brother said that." "How does he know that?" No real answer. And I said, "Go ask him. I'm really curious. I want to know more." And he's like, "Do you want to come to a meeting?" I was like, "Ah, one step at a time." And I just kept asking him these questions. And I think even after a while he realized that it just didn't make any sense.
Christian Picciolini: [00:10:32] Well, you know what, Jordan, what you did is exactly what I do and what my organization does is life after hate. We try and help people disengage from hate groups and these hateful ideologies -- not by arguing with them and not by getting in their face or punching them or taking away their gym membership. What we do is we approach with compassion because that's the way we were transformed. When we were at our worst, we received compassion from the people we least deserved it from when we least deserved it. And that's how we, we're able to change our narrative and understand the other and connect and humanize other people because we've been so detached from that and we were taught to blame them. It was that compassion and that dialogue that really changed us. You know, you were way ahead of this. You should come work for us.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:18] Yeah, I mean, it was something that I'm not sure I was really naturally that good at that point. I can tell you with probably some certainty that we didn't finish all of our conversations. One of my regrets is he used to message me like, "Hey, what's going on?" And I would be like, "Oh, I'm busy now." I can't talk to this person, or I'm bored of this. And I didn't quite get the gravity of the situation. Then he eventually stopped messaging me and look, the fact of the matter is, if his older brother was the one recruiting him into this organization. I, at some level, felt no matter what I do, he's going to join anyway, which sucks because that's not necessarily the case.
Christian Picciolini: [00:11:50] It'd be amazing if you could find this guy today.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:52] Yeah, and the problem is AOL chat, not going to happen, even if the screen name is still active, there's no record of that stuff. But the reason I brought that up is not to say, "Gee, I discovered skinheads before now," and it's to say, look, there's clearly, there's an element to this. There's a certain type of person that is joining this, not because they believe those things, that comes at the end if it ever comes at all, from my understanding.
Christian Picciolini: [00:12:17] Yeah. You know, there may be people who just have questions and are so isolated from people that's easy to hear this fear rhetoric that other people are saying, and politicians and media, and it's easy to swallow it and say, "Oh, okay." And then they come across somebody who is a recruiter and that person just reinforces it, and then they will start believing this ideology. But then I don't think that that's what drives them to these groups or to say these comments online. I really think that even online people are part of a community. The alt-right folks have a community. You can create an identity online that is completely fantasized from your real life. So the reason that people are becoming quote-unquote radicalized online is because they don't fit in in real life, but they do fit in online.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:00] I've noticed that a lot of the alt-right figures and of course a favorite game of the alt-right, I'm going to ask you about this in a little bit, is to pretend like they don't know what alt-right means or they can't quite define it or they've never heard that before, or that's something that only the left says, even though Richard Spencer owns the website. Or that they don't agree with that guy because that guy is a Kook. Of course, everybody who doesn't agree with, he's a kook in that case as well. But they create these worlds in which they are a superhero that's oppressed by everyone, and all of their little minions are like, "Oh, it's only us now." And it just looks so obviously familiar to anybody who studied any form of history that that's what brownshirts have always done except for now it's the brownshirt geek legion of like, "Well, you know, I've always been oppressed by the man at school, but now I'm a tough guy because I've got this gang of people on the Internet that will post your wife's details online if we decide we're mad at you because now we can be anonymous and hide." Whereas before, that kind of thing would frankly have gotten your butt kicked, which is why one reason I assume why guys in your situation join actual gangs and hang out with each other.
Christian Picciolini: [00:14:03] Yeah. I mean, I have to say that 30 years ago had these same alt-right folks been around our guys, we probably would have not liked them very much. I think we probably would have kicked their asses, but it is what it is. Things evolve, but it's the same thing. I mean, whether we're calling it the alt-right or white nationalism or neo-Nazism, it's just a level of denial on their part publicly. Now in private, they have no problem calling themselves national socialists or whatever they're calling themselves these days.
[00:14:31] Now, I think they're called ethnonationalist and identitarian. It's just constantly evolving so that they can stay one step ahead of the media, understanding exactly what they are, but the fact is. They haven't changed.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:43] Right. Here's this arbitrary distinction about why we're not Nazis because those people were only in the 40s. Yeah, sure, it's 98 percent overlap, but we're different in this one way, so it's completely different now. And anybody who labels it as that is just being ignorant. Okay, I mean, I understand their need to do that. I wouldn't want to be labeled a Nazi either, even if my ideology overlaps 99 percent or half, depending on what sort of level we're talking about here, but let's get back to your origin story here.
[00:15:11] So you're smoking a joint, guy takes it out of your mouth after rolling up Matthew McConaughey's style in a Thunderbird or something like that tells you, "Hey man, that's what Jews want you to do so that you're docile." Neither of you probably knew the meaning of that word, but it didn't matter because he seemed cool and was listening to you. How does that go from throwing your joint on the ground and sort of a very ‘80s movie fashion to you, then suddenly being the leader of one of the largest skinhead gangs anywhere in the United States?
Christian Picciolini: [00:15:38] Well, that guy that stopped me and crushed the joint was America's first neo-Nazi skinhead leader and the neo-Nazi skinhead movement started in that alley about a year and a half prior to that event. His name was Clark Martell. Chicago Area SkinHeads was the group that brought it over from England and it grew from there. And that's where the Hammerskins grew out of. For me, it was riding my stupid little bike up and down that alley and running to the store to buy him cigarettes and beer when a 14-year-old-kid could still do that and say that it was for your parents or something like that. I was kind of their gopher for a little while and then I shaved my head and then one of them gave me an old pair of combat boots that were sitting in a closet somewhere. And slowly but surely, they brought me in and I learned the rhetoric. I learned everything from the playbook, and I became very good at recruiting myself. I'd found my confidence.
[00:16:31] And then one day when I was 16 years old, Clark and most of the older, original skinhead crew had gone out to attack another female skinhead that was part of their crew because earlier they had seen her standing at a bus stop with a black man, and when they went to her apartment, they kicked in her door and they beat her and pistol-whipped her and left her for dead, but not before painting a swastika on her wall with her own blood.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:55] That is so freaking crazy and diabolical, and that's disgusting
Christian Picciolini: [00:16:59] It is disgusting. And I was so lucky to not be there. And maybe it was because I was too young and they didn't really trust me or whatever, but I was lucky to not be there, but I was unlucky at the same time because what that did was left a void. I mean, all these older skinheads now were gone. They were either in prison or they ran or tried to disappear. And here I was the guy, even though I was only 16 and the youngest, I'd been around the longest. And here I was part of this very infamous skinhead crew that now it started to spread all over the country.
[00:17:30] You know, everybody who had been recruited after me looked to me as the new leader and asked what we should do and I was very eager. I was always very ambitious as a young kid. Maybe that's because my parents were entrepreneurs or. Just because they had to work really hard when they came to this country. I always grew up thinking, well, you have to run your own business. You don't work for anybody else. So I almost saw this at 16 years old as an entrepreneurial opportunity for me, where I stepped in and I was able to organize. I recognized pretty quickly that music in that movement was a very powerful tool, both for propaganda and for recruitment.
[00:18:04] And I started one of America's first white power skinhead bands. The music was very effective at getting young kids to come to shows, to become indoctrinated by the lyrics and the propaganda, and to incite them to be violent. You know, suddenly we had the coolest parties and there were hundreds of kids and people were shaving their heads and coming to meetings, and it really started to work. We did our fair share of violence. You know, I don't want to not talk about that. We definitely heard a lot of people, but that wasn't our primary mission. Ours was more recruitment and marketing. But yeah, we did absolutely hurt a lot of people along the way, and I feel very responsible for not only the people that I hurt physically but for the people that I brought into my organization that completely affected their trajectory in life. Some of them died, some of them went to prison. Some of them got stuck in that movement, and that's my fault.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:55] Jason.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:18:56] This is Jason the producer. Question. Did you ever hang out at many Naked Raygun shows at Metro?
Christian Picciolini: [00:19:01] Oh man. I think I've seen more Naked Raygun shows, not only at Metro but even in VFW Halls back in the early ‘80s, more than any other band I've ever seen in my life.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:19:12] Yeah, I bet we have been to many shows together.
Christian Picciolini: [00:19:14] It's likely. Yeah, for sure and yeah, you guys were dicks.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:19:19] Yeah, we were. We were.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:20] Geez, Jason, you are like the Forrest Gump of underground music/tech scenes for real. You pop up everywhere.
Christian Picciolini: [00:19:28] Metro was a primary recruitment ground after punk rock shows.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:19:31] Oh yeah, definitely.
Christian Picciolini: [00:19:33] Stand up-front and you know, look for the kids that look like scumbags and promise them paradise.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:19:40] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Christian Picciolini. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:43] Are you targeting minorities or are you actually just going after other white kids thinking, "Well, if we make them an enemy, then they'll want to actually join for protection"? I mean, what kind of targeting are we talking about?
Christian Picciolini: [00:22:56] We definitely targeted minorities, but interestingly enough, we fought mostly against other white kids, you know, anti-racist skinheads. They call themselves SHARP, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, and they moved into our town. We fought them a lot, you know, being from Chicago as well, we also fall with a lot of street gangs.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:14] All right, so young people are pissed off in general, right? Nowadays, they distrust their parents, media, business cops, and government. They are not looking forward to a bright future. So you're really not sure what's going to happen in your future. And like I mentioned before, there is that parallel with ISIS. The gang parallel is right there. People are quite disconnected, and it's not the ideology though that's driving this. It really is that loss of purpose or loss of community, loss of a sense of identity, but it's not racial identity. I'm just trying to sort of clarify that minutia.
Christian Picciolini: [00:23:46] I think hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father and isolation as its mother. So if you take fear -- fear of the unknown -- you're blaming for some problem in your life, and you're so isolated from them that you've never met them or had a meaningful interaction with them or a meaningful dialogue, and you're just basing it on all of this information that's coming from, who knows where -- fake news, conspiracy theories, your friends, your family, whoever the president -- it turns into hate. It distills into violence. So when we're talking about ICP -- the identity, the community, and the purpose -- if there is an underlying grievance, if there is an underlying trauma or abuse, we call them potholes. The things that deviated them from their original path. And it could be an experience. It could be a bad experience where you got robbed by a black guy. And because you've never had a connection to other African-Americans because you might be isolated in some rural part of America, and then all you see on television are all these gang flicks and Law & Order arresting, the black guys, you become afraid of that and that becomes your narrative.
[00:24:53] So, you know, for me it really was that trauma of feeling abandoned that sucked me in and made me seek attention, made me project my attention. The fact is I hated other people because I hated myself. I hated my own situation, and I was in pain over that, and I wanted to project that onto other people so I didn't have to deal with it. And I suspect that that's the case with 99 percent of the people who become radicalized into violent extremism, regardless of what type of extremism.
[00:25:22] So let's talk about, you know, what just happened in Alexandria, Virginia. Yeah. Here's a guy who is on the left and something we don't also don't talk about. We hardly talk about the far right, and we hardly talk about the far left. All we talk about is quote-unquote radical Islamic extremism, which I can't stand the name of because it's totally wrong. But this guy was fed conspiracy theory stuff and he was very fervent. All the details aren't in, but clearly, the guy has been living in his van since March. That was the last time his wife saw him. Clearly, there was this underlying pothole that existed and it boiled up to a point where he felt so desperate that he couldn't solve his own issues, that he wanted to just try and solve it by projecting that on to other people, and that leaves a legacy. It makes you a martyr to some people. It feels like you've done something to do your part without leaving the world as this useless person that you feel like,
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:13] just to put a pin on this, tell us exactly what you're talking about right now.
Christian Picciolini: [00:26:17] There was a shooting by a middle-aged white male in Alexandria, Virginia at a baseball practice where the Republicans were practicing for a yearly game that they have against the Democrats. It's a fundraiser. And this man who was living in a van in that area took out a rifle and a pistol and he started shooting at the people who were practicing on the field, wounding a representative from the government, and several other people. Because the Capitol Police, luckily being there, was eventually taken down. Listen, anybody who does that is suffering from something, and I'm not saying mental illness because I don't always want to give it that excuse. It could be something else. It could be the fact that -- and I'm speaking in generalities here -- he's always had a hard time finding a job, or maybe he went to prison for something when he was younger and that's ruined his opportunity in the future. And maybe there is a mental illness that's gone undiagnosed or untreated, or maybe there's abuse and trauma that's never been dealt with or talked about in a proper way.
[00:27:13] All those things boil up to a point where it makes people feel pretty worthless. If they don't get the services or the opportunities that they need, and if they're always constantly being fed these counter-narratives, these alternate realities from fake news and conspiracy theories. Well, you know, I mean, there are people who really, really believe that stuff. There are people who really believe that during pizza gate there were children and child pornography being filmed in a basement of a pizza place in Washington, DC and in fact, somebody went there with a gun to check it out. I mean, we have to be very careful. There's so much information out there online that it's hard to distinguish what's real news, what's fake news, what's parody, what's propaganda. And we really do need to become more critical thinkers. But I think more than that, we need to make sure that the people who need services and opportunities are getting that early, so it doesn't culminate into some tragedy like we see almost day after day.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:07] This type of thing continues to happen and it's sort of a big question mark, whether or not it's just the focus of mentally ill people because it's in the news and because it's a something they're reading about online often or whether or not this is actually inciting the violence itself and that sort of a different question for probably a different set of experts here. You were quite enterprising when it came to running this skinhead gang. I mean, you weren't just going to punk shows and kicking people's butts, you got invited to meet with Gaddafi.
Christian Picciolini: [00:28:36] Yeah. In the early ‘90s, he sent an attaché to meet -- originally he was supposed to meet with Clark Martell, but because he was in prison and I was now running the organization, a skinhead from Toronto, who'd been tasked with meeting with us invited us to go to Libya and Gaddafi wanted to fund organizations that were opposing Jews in America because let's face it, their enemy is also the Jew. And here's a prediction that I will make. That's a chilling prediction. It's just a matter of time before we see the far-right extremists and ISIS-inspired extremists working together. And most people are going to think that that's crazy because they hate each other but if you think about it, who they hate more is the common enemy and they both consider Jew as the common enemy.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:23] How does Gaddafi get a hold of you? Is he sending you guys an email? I mean, how does somebody like that even get ahold of somebody like you? This is so confusing.
Christian Picciolini: [00:29:31] Yeah. There was no email back then or at least not that I was connected to, but they contacted somebody in Canada and there was the Northern Hammerskins in Canada, in Montreal, and they'd send somebody there and that guy came to me and when I was the interim director and asked if I would go. I said, "No." As much as I was willing to accept money, I was still very patriotic. I was not interested in working with a dictator at that time, especially a non-white dictator. Luckily, I refused because what ended up happening was that it was a sting operation set up by Canadian Intelligence. They were aware of meetings were happening, so they actually embedded somebody in and after I was asked to go and everybody decided they were going to go, they got brought down.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:17] I'm just imagining log in to your AOL and it's like you've got mail. "Hi, this is Gaddafi. You want to come to Libya and check out my palace. By the way, I want to kill a bunch of Jews in Chicago, indiscriminately." It's just mind-blowing to me and almost seems like a prank and almost seems like had you done it, somebody would've met you at the airport and been like, "You guys are idiots. Let's go have a beer." It just sounds unbelievable.
Christian Picciolini: [00:30:39] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, looking back now, it does sound pretty bizarre. Yeah. I was lucky I could have been something that destroyed my life and other people's lives.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:49] How did you start to transform your thinking? Because right now, I mean at this point in the story, you've got to be one of the most convinced convicted, skinheads. Anywhere, you're leading the charge, people are looking to you for ideological support.
Christian Picciolini: [00:31:03] You know, the truth now is that I was seeking power, and I definitely questioned my ideology the whole eight years that I was involved. I stayed in from ‘87 to '95. I questioned it every step of the way, but the power drew me back in, and I always found some reason to kind of put aside the confusion that I was having. My celebrity was growing. I was becoming kind of an international leader because of the band kind of a subject. And what started to change me is pretty simple actually. In 1992, I met a girl and we fell in love and she wasn't a part of the movement. Then we ended up getting married when I was 19 years old and we had our first child at 19 and our second one at 21 and I can tell you that holding my son in my arms for the first time really challenged my idea of who I was. I suddenly reconnected with the innocence that I lost at 14 years old and that identity, community, and purpose that I had been entrenched in with this movement.
[00:32:00] my new identity as a father and my new community with my wife and my child, and my purpose of being the family man really challenged my narrative started to, anyway. I decided at that point at my wife's encouragement because, of course, she didn't agree or like anything that I was involved in. I pulled back. So I stopped going out on the streets. I stopped performing with the band and I decided I was going to open a record shop. My compromise with her was I was going to run a business to support the family, but I wanted to sell white power music because that's really all I knew at that time. And I opened a small record shop on the South Side of Chicago and I sold white power music and I also sold punk rock and heavy metal and hip hop. But 75 percent of my music sales were white power music. This was before the Internet, so people were coming in from every state to buy it.
[00:32:58] What I didn't expect was the customers who were coming in to buy punk rock and metal and hip hop having such an effect on me. At first, I was very standoffish with minorities who would come in or anybody who I considered opposite of my views, and this is a small neighborhood, so everybody knew what I was about. Over time, I started to have a really meaningful dialogue with these people. They showed me compassion. They could have punched me. They could have broken my windows. They could have spray painted my store, slashed my tires. They never did that. And even though they knew who I was and how terrible my ideas were, they came in and every time they came in they approached me with compassion and with empathy, and it was that compassion and empathy from the people that I at least deserved it from -- when I at least deserve that -- that really helped me finally question what it was that I was involved in and allowed me the strength to realize that that wasn't what I wanted to do and helped me get out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:46] So when you were enjoying all this celebrity and you were seeking power and then you left. What now fills that gap for you or is that gap gone somehow?
Christian Picciolini: [00:33:56] That's an interesting question. Actually, when I decided to pull the white power music from the shelves because I didn't agree with it anymore and I was embarrassed to sell it in front of these new friends because it was 75 percent of my revenue, the store collapsed. I had to close it. So, I lost my job. At the same time, I lost my wife and children because they left me because I hadn't left the movement quickly enough. I haven't paid enough attention to them. And then have a great relationship with my parents, even though they tried very, very hard for those eight years to try and help me. And suddenly I lost my community. I lost this celebrity, this status, this power, and I lost my identity. And for five years after I left -- even though I had started to treat other people with respect and dignity, and I treated everybody fairly and just -- I was miserable and I was miserable because I was trying to outrun who I was. I decided I was going to wear long sleeve shirts to cover the tattoos. I was going to move. I was going to try and make new friends, and even though I did that because I wasn't revealing my past because I was trying to hide it, it was really killing me inside.
[00:34:58] And then I woke up every morning where I contemplated taking my own life. And until one day in 1999 I, one of the few friends that I had suggested that I had to change something because she didn't want to see me die. And I was like, "Okay." And she recommended to go apply for a job that IBM where she works. And I said, "You're crazy. What am I going to be doing at IBM? I don't have a degree. I don't know anything about computers. They don't own a computer. I got kicked out of six high schools, one of them twice. And you know, I'm a former neo-Nazi, why would they even hire me?" She's trying to give me more confidence. She's like, "Well, just tell him you're really good with people. I went in there and I submitted a resume that I'm sure I lied on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:38] I'm a people person. Really? You're a skinhead dude. I'm not sure if I buy that comment.
Christian Picciolini: [00:35:43] Well, you know, I was very good at recruiting people, so I did have a way of communicating but I got the job. I don't know if it's fate, destiny, karma, whatever, God's will, whatever your listeners want to call it. When I got the job the first day that they placed me on a project -- where did they place me? But at my old high school, the same one I got kicked out of twice to install like all their computers and set up their network.
[00:36:08] Of course, I'm terrified. Here I am, now this adult and I'm sweating and I don't know what to say or what to do, and I'm sitting in my car in fear that the minute I walk into this place, somebody's going to recognize me and tell me to get the F-out and I'd lose my job. And this important thing that happened to me. Of course, what happens, I walk in and the old black security guard that I have gotten in a fistfight with -- that got me kicked out the second time, walks right past me and he didn't recognize me at that moment, but I was frozen with fear until I decided that I had to do something because I couldn't live like that. And I followed him to the parking lot as he was getting into his car and I tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around, he recognized me and he was afraid.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:51] Yeah, of course. You follow him through the parking lot and you snuck up behind him. What were you thinking?
Christian Picciolini: [00:36:55] Probably not the best idea at the time, but you know, it worked out because all I could think to say to this guy who I'd heard in the past was, I'm sorry. He stuck out his hand and I shook up. We hugged and we cried, and he made me promise that I would tell my story, that I would not hide it anymore because he recognized that my story wasn't just about some kid who became a neo-Nazi skinhead. It was about some kid who felt vulnerable and marginalized, who was convinced by somebody else's narrative for a selfish reason. And he recognized that that also happened to kids that joined gangs. And maybe he had premonitions about other terrorist groups, but he knew that my story was important for those reasons.
[00:37:36] That's when I started to tell people slowly but surely, I would tell people about my past when I had an opportunity to do so. I was floored by the fact that they couldn't believe that I was the person that I was describing -- the same person that they knew and that really gave me hope. I noticed my life got better. I was a better dad; I was a better son. I became a better employee. I didn't want to kill myself every morning. That's when I wrote my book. It took me 10 years to write my book and finish it. But that was the true catharsis for me because I had to go back then and think about everything that I'd done and relive that not only my own pain but the pain that I caused other people and was able to finally publish that recently.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:38:20] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Christian Picciolini. We'll be right back after this.
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[00:40:27] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals and don't forget the worksheet for today's episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. And if you're listening to us in the Overcast player, please click that little star next to the episode. We really appreciate it. And now for the conclusion of our episode with Christian Picciolini.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:57] Of course, the book, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead -- a really interesting read, interesting introspection that you've got really deep introspection that's quite admirable for someone coming from your position. I'm frankly a little surprised that your professional career, the jobs that you got after that, that this didn't catch up to you in some stronger way because I feel like a lot of people who are in this situation might be thinking, "I can't get out. It's impossible." I mean I'm just imagining you in a job interview for this handyman sort of repair business and things like that. And your resume says something like, previous accomplishments doubled the size of my previous organization and it's like, "Oh, what was your previous organization?" "Well, Mr. Rubenstein, you might want to have a seat while I explain this to you." And nothing like that ever happened.
Christian Picciolini: [00:41:44] Yeah. Well, I think I was lucky that the Internet wasn't around. That's certainly helped. At an early age, I was an entrepreneur too. So while I did work for other people, most of the time I ran my own businesses. I started a record label and an artist management company, and then eventually, I went on to produce a TV show. I was always honest after that. When I started to be honest about it, I told people, and I had learned one how to forgive myself, but I had learned myself during that time and why I did the things I did. I think as long as I was honest about that and genuine, people were willing to look past it. It certainly wasn't the way I introduced myself. When I met somebody, "Hi, my name is Christian," shake his hand, and all of a sudden, I'm saying I'm a Nazi guy. So it came up when it was appropriate, but you know, I was able to be genuine and honest about my story, and I think that went a long way with people.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:35] What about your gang? Whether you're seeing those guys around town and they're like, "You're next buddy." Well, what happened?
Christian Picciolini: [00:42:40] You know, I was a pretty selfish leader because of my ego at the time, and I never really trained anybody to take over in my place when I left. So the group locally at least imploded. While I did get some threats, I was raising a family and working full time so I wasn't really in the same circles as those people anymore. However, regionally and nationally and internationally, there were a lot of people that were very angry that I left and I was branded a race traitor. I certainly couldn't go to some places around the country where I knew there were pockets of people that would recognize me but I get more threats today than I did back then. And you know, maybe chalk that one up to the Internet too. But yeah, I mean, I get threats and death threats on a daily basis.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:22] Well, now you must get more. Now you're even more visible.
Christian Picciolini: [00:43:24] Yeah. I get more now just because of the nature of the organization and the work that I do and all the media attention that our organization is getting.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:32] And of course the organization that you're referring to, we'd love to hear a little bit about that as well.
Christian Picciolini: [00:43:35] Sure. Life After Hate is an organization that I co-founded in 2011 as a nonprofit. And our goal is to help people disengage from the far-right, from extremist groups. And everybody that works at Life After Hate is a former extremist. Most of us have been out for 20 years and have spent those 20 years speaking about our past. That makes us uniquely qualified to be these bridge builders to people who are in these movements because we understand their language, we understand why they say the certain things that they do, and we also understand that they're based on fiction and not fact. However, we don't really argue ideologically with folks. We listen more than we speak and we listen for those potholes that deviated their path. And that's how we help rebuild them. Because we don't battle ideologically, we focus on the person, we try to make them more resilient, more self-confident. That can be through job training and education, tattoo removal, mental health therapy, life coaching, whatever the case may be. We focus on that.
[00:44:37] And when people become more resilient, more confident, it's amazing how quickly the ideology falls away because now there's nobody else to blame. They're more competitive, they're more confident, they have access to real information, but that's not really possible until we immerse them in a situation or with people that they think that they hate. So I may introduce a Holocaust denier to a Holocaust survivor or an Islamophobe to an Imam or a Muslim family. It's those associations -- oftentimes the first time they've ever met somebody that they claim to hate -- it's those meaningful interactions that allow them to humanize these people and not fear them. Without arguing ideologically with anybody because we know that that polarizes us further, that combination of resilience and introduction and connection is pretty amazing to counter that ideological thinking.
[00:45:25] And then after the fact, we have a very large support group of over a hundred people, private mind group of all formers, people who've gotten out on her own, people we've helped get out, and we have some pretty amazing conversations on there and it's like a support network.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:38] What can people do if they know someone that is thinking of joining one of these groups, they suspect their kid or their cousin or their friend is being influenced by these people. What's the first step? Because, of course, I'd love to say, "Hey, give them the book," but let's be real if someone is going to parties or listening to punk music or having a blast with their friends, they're not going to go, "Maybe I should really sit down and read a long book about this and why it's bad." They're more inclined to watch something on YouTube if they're even open to the ideas of the contrary at all, for that matter.
Christian Picciolini: [00:46:06] Well, you know, first I would say send them to exitusa.org and that's our intervention Portal, so to speak, but you know, second, I would say, don't argue with them. Listen to them. Find out what it is exactly that they're angry about -- not what they're saying and who they're angry at or what they're angry about -- and treat them with empathy. Because I can tell you if somebody would've punched me or argued with me, I would have punched back harder and argued stronger, but listen and understand and just show compassion and love will push out the hate. And I know that sounds Pollyanna, but man, trust me, it works.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:41] A little bit, but I understand because obviously there's some sort of disconnect between those people and then viewing these other groups is actually human because it's very hard to hate people that are humanized. And there's also a disconnect between probably these people really seeing the true consequences of what they're doing. They're more thinking, "Hey, it's cool. We all get together. We drink beer, and we talk about how bad Jews are, but you know, this party, this weekend is going to be amazing." They're not thinking, "Oh no, really, we need to solve this Jewish problem or this African-American problem or this illegal immigrant problem." It's more of just like. A rallying cry from their meetings to Twitter. How many of these people are true believers and how many of them are just like, "Yeah, you know, I don't have any friends. These are my friends."
Christian Picciolini: [00:47:27] I would say that there's a small percentage that are true believers and a large percentage that are kind of useful idiots to use and intelligence word -- they're being duped and they're being used. And even though they may believe the things that these people are saying, they don't understand the consequences. They've never had the connection to these people, so they don't understand the truth. They don't grasp the concept that there are over a billion Muslims in the world and a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of one percent of them are ISIS terrorists. And the rest are just like them and go to worship and have families and work every day and you know, have the same struggles and fundamental human needs that they have. I would say that there is hope. You know, there's always the sociopathic or psychopathic leader who would be very hard to reach, but most people aren't bad persons. Most people are in the community because it's comforting. The identity is something that feeds their ego, or maybe it makes them feel powerful. And the purpose fills a void for them, although it's a void that's being filled by a purpose that's not based on true fact or actual knowledge, it's based on theory and often conspiracy theory.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:36] Christian, I want to wrap with a story that I know is deeply personal for you. I asked you before whether or not the skinhead gangs had come back to punish you in some way, and I know we discussed that a little bit, but tell us about your brother.
Christian Picciolini: [00:48:52] So my brother is 10 years younger than me and we were super close when I was young. He was the only friend I had really from the time I was 10 years old until I was 14 and I joined this group. I really wasn't there for him during his own adolescence and development. He had to live down my legacy as this now charismatic, kind of powerful leader that everybody, either feared or adored. We weren't the same personality type. He was very kind of lovable and funny and not a leader, very much a follower. And he tried to follow in my footsteps, not necessarily with the same ideology. And I think part of that was because he was so angry at me for abandoning him, essentially like my parents abandoned me. He kind of went down a different path and he started to hang around with some gang members.
[00:49:42] One day, he was driving around with one of his friends, trying to buy some weed in a neighborhood that he shouldn't have been in because a month before, some Latino gang members had done a drive-by shooting against some African-American gang members in that neighborhood. And here's my brother driving around with olive skin being Italian and this friend was Latino driving and they were looking for weed and he was shot and killed. And I felt very responsible for that because I wasn't there for him because I felt like I abandoned him. And at his funeral, friends, even some family were expecting me to flip out. This was after I had left the movement several years later. And I could tell you the last thing that I wanted was revenge. I missed my brother. I wanted him to be there and I was so blaming of myself for almost feeling responsible for how it ended up for him because he wanted to follow in my footsteps and get the same quote-unquote respect that I got that, you know, I felt like it was my karma for having gone through what I did and hurt other people.
[00:50:45] I think that that individual who shot my brother is probably a victim of the same type of trauma and abuse and lack of opportunity that so many other people are. I forgive him for what he did because it's probably a product of his environment, unfortunately. And I have to have compassion for people like that if I'm going to be genuine about the work that I do because I deal with people every day who have done really terrible things in their past. And when I try and work with them to help them humanize other people, I remember my own experiences and that's what drives me. I use my own life experiences and how I was transformed and feelings that I had to really understand and connect with the people that I'm working with.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:30] It sounds like you had by that point, become more resilient by the time of your brother's death, and you didn't need the crutch of hatred at that point.
Christian Picciolini: [00:51:39] That's exactly right. That's exactly right. So at that point, my kids were older and I had a great relationship with them. I had a great relationship with my parents that I rebuilt. I remarried. I still have an amazing wife. I've been married for 15 years. Life was pretty good. You know, I'd been working at IBM and I'd become successful. Things were pretty great except I didn't have a relationship with my brother because when I tried to approach him, as I started to recognize he was having problems, he pushed me away because he blamed me for not being there for him. And I'll never forget that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:12] Christian, thank you so much for being so open with us today. And showing us not only how to handle these situations, these very difficult situations with those around us and maybe with our own loved ones, but just your story of compassion and coming through this from the top and all the way out is incredible.
Christian Picciolini: [00:52:28] I appreciate it, Jordan. Thank you so much for having me.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:34] This is the end of Part One with Christian Picciolini. We have Part Two coming up in just a few days, so make sure you finish up with us here. His book, by the way, if you want to go pick it up, is Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism. It's a good read. Lots of stories in there about how he rescues people from these crazy extremist gangs. Really interesting stuff. Fascinating this whole underworld that I'd never really seen before. Links to the book and to Christian will be in the show notes. Also, in the show notes, there are worksheets for each episode, so you can review what you've learned here from Christian Picciolini. We also now have transcripts for each episode and those can be found in the show notes as well.
[00:53:10] A few folks have said they never remember to go to the website to check out the notes. I understand that you can see an abbreviated version of the show notes on your phone. If you tap the show art in most podcast apps, it's not the full notes. It's a little bit of a teaser, but you should see a few things there. And if you're looking for specific Twitter handles and things like that, or a short description of the show that is present in the apps. I know a lot of people don't actually know that, and I don't blame you.
[00:53:34] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free. That's over at jordanharbinger.com/course and look, I know you want to do it later. You don't have time right now. You've got things to do, but not digging the well before you're thirsty is the number one mistake I see people make in business and in their personal life. Once you need these relationships, once you need to leverage them, you're a little bit too late. Don't procrastinate, don't stagnate. Go and grab this stuff. It takes a few minutes a day, hence the name Six-Minute Networking. It's free, not enter-your-credit-card free, just free-free, jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in great company. In fact, why not reach out to Christian and tell him you enjoyed this episode of the show? Show guests love hearing from you. You never know what might shake out of that. His Twitter handle will be in the show notes. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and follow me on social as well. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[00:54:31] The show is created in association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFillippo, and our engineer is Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I'm your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own. And yeah, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. I'm sure as heck, not a doctor or a therapist. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, which should be in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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